Based on the true story of the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), Wash Westmoreland plunges us into the literary scene of turn-of-the-century Paris. Almost immediately his camera casts a critical eye on this setting. Rather than a place of vibrancy, he portrays a world of shallow pretension and opportunism, the ideal habitat for Colette’s careerist husband Wily (Dominic West), who publishes her sapphic stories under his own name.
The entire film revolves around the relationship between West and Knightley. It is a joy to watch Colette grow in confidence, mirroring the way many young women free themselves from the yoke of mediocre men, and Knightley nails that transition. On the other end of the spectrum, West’s turn as Willy is a surprisingly subtle study of a man who attempts to mask his deep insecurities through a theatrical bluster. West manages to imbue this character with some sympathy without absolving him of his numerous faults.
Admittedly it takes a while to rev up, but as Colette begins to explore her identity as a queer woman the film begins to take flight. Knightley, whose career was somewhat defined by the billowy gowns of British period drama, wears her increasingly androgynous wardrobe in ‘Colette’ with a refreshing bravado, and Andrea Flesch’s work as costume designer is easily the highlight.